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Blue Jackets pick Sonny Milano latest to spurn college for major junior

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Blue Jackets' first-rounder Sonny Milano is skipping school for the OHL. (USATSI)
Blue Jackets' first-rounder Sonny Milano is skipping school for the OHL. (USATSI)

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Sonny Milano's life has changed a bit over the last few months. The Massapequa, N.Y., native was selected 16th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL Entry Draft in June. That's a pretty big deal already. Over the weekend, Milano further changed the course of his young life and possibly his career after choosing that he would not attend Boston College in the fall as initially planned, but rather would sign with the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers.

Boston College's hockey program first broke the news over Twitter, stating that Milano had informed the school of his intention to sign a professional contract with Columbus, which would make him ineligible to play in the NCAA. Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has since refuted that the club played a role in Milano's decision, saying they would have supported him if he stayed on the path to Boston College according to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch.

Either way, Milano's college eligibility will be cashed once he signs with the Plymouth Whalers, if he hasn't already. In a statement released through his agent, Milano did confirm his intention to sign with the Whalers.

The super skilled winger posted 86 points as a member of the U.S. National Under-18 Team, part of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and rose to marginal internet fame for his stick-trick video from the NHL scouting combine. There's no question that he has all the tools to one day become a good NHL player. But a lot of attention will be placed on his decision between two distinctly different developmental paths.

The fact that there are a variety of places the NHL gets its players from makes hockey particularly unique among the professional leagues. Whether its European clubs, junior or college teams, NHL prospects come from all over. There's no linear path like in football or basketball where it's high school then college then pro.

Every player is different and every decision comes down to what the player feels is best for him. Even though Milano assured the media while participating in USA Hockey's World Junior camp at the beginning of August that he was headed to BC, it seemed that the growing rumors about his heading to the OHL were a little too loud to consider it a lock.

What this situation has done in part, is open up some old wounds in an ongoing debate about hockey development and which route is the “right” one to get a player to the NHL in a timely manner, while also ensuring he is ready for the challenges that face him at the pro level.

At this point, it's too early to say if Milano made the right choice. A player of his skill level should produce at a high level at Plymouth, particularly already having had two years of high-level hockey under his belt at the NTDP, which has churned out some of the best American players in the game today like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter and more. He probably would have done well at Boston College, too, though.

There is a constant race by both Canadian Hockey League teams and the NCAA to recruit and retain top-level players. The recruiting war between the two sides often muddies the waters as each tries to prove it is indeed the best route.

But the fact remains, the two sides offer very different ways to develop. That's why there may be no true "right" way. There is no one-size-fits-all situation that will get players to the NHL.

The CHL route, which includes the WHL and QMJHL in addition to the OHL, offers more games and tries to more closely mirror an NHL schedule. It also includes the deepest pool of NHL prospects to compete with and against.

The college side has less games, but has more time for practices and off-ice training. It also affords players a chance to play against older players. Junior hockey has an age limit that requires players to be 20 or younger. College hockey has no such age limit, though the older players are often topped out at 23 or 24. There's also the responsibility to stay academically eligible.

That is somewhat of an oversimplification of the two sides' arguments, but this essentially outlines the basics.

It is those differences that make each uniquely successful at producing high-quality NHL players, though. In truth, odds are, if a player is good enough, his NHL future is dictated far more on what he does to make himself better than where he goes. A player that is dedicated to training, being coached and getting stronger is going to be able to have success going either route.

But the Milano decision also comes at an interesting time for college athletics as a whole. The NCAA has had its amateurism rules called into question in legal proceedings and some of the moves they have made partially in response to the litigation suggests that the noose on amateurism is going to be loosened.

As discussions increase on paying college athletes with stipends, it starts making the NCAA's rules regarding major junior hockey players look like they're on a bit less solid footing.

Currently, the NCAA specifically bars players from the Canadian major junior leagues from retaining eligibility due to the fact that their leagues include “professionals” as many players are under NHL contracts while playing in the CHL. That those players receive small weekly stipends as well does not factor in as much as the pro contracts rules.

This is that slippery slope you often hear NCAA honks recite when it comes to amateurism.

Considering that changes could be coming to how college athletics are governed, there's reason to wonder how long CHL players won't be eligible to play college hockey after their junior careers are over. If those rules were to change, it really could change the landscape of college hockey as we know it, perhaps for the better, but likely not in terms of quality of play. It seems as though it's only a matter of time before those restrictions are loosened.

If more players were able to go the CHL route while retaining their college eligibility, the likelihood of them ever ending up on a college campus before the NHL comes calling appears much slimmer in that scenario.

It's still too early to say how these court rulings will impact the landscape of the NHL's developmental paths. The NCAA still will fight tooth and nail on some of these issues and it could be years before the change is felt. It's more just something to monitor as it would have a significant impact on the two most important feeder systems to the NHL.

In the meantime, players like Milano will still be pulled in either direction and will be faced with a tough choice.

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